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It is no mistake that mewithoutYou have become one of today’s most fascinating experimental rock acts. The last 15 years have borne witness to the Philadelphia five-piece exercising stylistic evolutions and aerial dynamics with humbling dexterity and untamed ambition. At their roots may be a theatrical progressive punk/post-hardcore band, but they’ve never been content to remain comfortably within a familiar genre. Their continuous multi-directional movements have left them increasingly difficult to classify, the growth of their branches impossible to predict. The group’s sixth full-length album, Pale Horses, is the best evidence to date of their eclectic agility.
The one constant in mewithoutYou’s storied career has been lead singer Aaron Weiss’ ability to sketch ornate, thought-provoking narratives. Seamlessly weaving his signature holler amidst whispered storytelling and stream-of-consciousness outpourings, his latest offerings vacillate between the emotionally wracked, vibrantly symbolic, and ambiguously metaphysical. His meandering, technicolor vision of a world apocalyptic—populated with werewolves and vulturemen, shape-shifters and apparitions, android whales and an Idaho bride—combines the fantastic opulence of the group’s recent albums with the vulnerable personal confessions of their earliest work.
Longtime band-mates Mike Weiss, Rickie Mazzotta and Greg Jehanian continue to craft dramatic, nightmare soundscapes which lavishly complement their singer’s ecstatic hallucinations. The addition of Brandon Beaver (of Buried Beds, the Silver Ages) allows the group as a 5-piece to revisit its earlier intricate, layered fretwork, while adding new depths of vocal harmonies and ever-peculiar arrangements. Musically, the group hearkens boldly to the raw intensity of 2004’s Catch for Us the Foxes, while building on the rich imagery of 2006’s Brother, Sister. Epic in scope, Pale Horses is mewithoutYou at their best, breathing fresh life into the end times, gloriously terrifying and hauntingly iconic.
Their latest album also marks a new beginning for the band, as it’s their first to be released on Run for Cover Records. Teaming with the rising Boston independent label was the outgrowth of their partnership with Will Yip, whose masterful production transforms the band’s transcendental musings into a widescreen experience. Drums and bass lines quake with the faults of the earth, as an army of guitars and multi-instrumental nuances ring in the paranoia, mass hysteria and peaceful exaltation. The result is a stunning collage—fitfully disturbing, steadily bizarre, uniquely celebratory—undoubtedly the grandest musical adventure yet conceived within mewithoutYou’s expanding tapestry.
Yoni Wolf has spent the last two decades traveling the remote sonic terrain where underground hip hop, avant-pop, and psych-rock meet. Some of Yoni’s most compelling and critically-praised musical experiments have been issued under the moniker WHY? and his latest entry is no exception. On AOKOHIO Yoni condenses the essential elements of WHY? into a stunningly potent musical vision.
Co-produced by Yoni and his brother Josiah, AOKOHIO presents a rich palette of musical voices that emerge and disappear into a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of sound. “I wanted a wide variety of sounds. I didn’t want this album to sit in one sonic zone. I’ve always felt like too jagged of a person to be smooth in that way,” Yoni says. While the album features many notable guest contributors, from Lala Lala’s Lillie West, to Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, the listener’s attention remains squarely directed on Yoni’s voice and vision.
AOKOHIO finds Yoni rethinking fundamental aspects of his approach to creating and delivering his music. The album is presented as six movements comprised of two to four songs each, with some segments appearing as brief fragments that dissolve within seconds.
“When I started this project, I decided I needed to try a new approach in creating music and how I work,” Yoni reflects. “I wasn’t feeling the idea of going back in and making another ten or twelve song album. It felt arduous. It felt like too much. So I wanted to pare the process down and make it manageable. I thought, ‘Why don’t I make small five or six minute movements and finish up each movement before I move on to the next.’ That’s how I started approaching it. The whole process took over five years, I’d start working on something and set it aside for awhile. The earliest songs on this album started in 2013.“
As Yoni reimagined his approach to creating music, he also began thinking of new ways to share the music with his audience. “I initially wanted to release the music as I progressed through the project,” Yoni says. “When I finished a movement I wanted to put it up digitally on Bandcamp or Soundcloud. I just wanted to make little pieces of music and put them out there. But I had a call with my manager and the label and they said, ‘We can release stuff through time like that, but we want to do it properly.’ So the idea of the project changed after that, but it retained the integrity of working in movements. It’s definitely a very different way of working for me. I think it has yielded some interesting results.”
The concept of sharing AOKOHIO in segments over time has been preserved with the release of an accompanying visual album. “I think it’s a very artful way of putting the music out there,” Yoni explains. “It’s like a television series, it’s revealing itself slowly over time. I think it’s cool that the audience gets to hear it one piece at a time, and has to wait and digest each piece before they get the next one.”
“I knew early on that I wanted that visual element for this album,” Yoni recalls. “My brother and I have worked on video stuff our whole lives. Our dad had video equipment since we were little kids, he had an editing suite in our basement. We weren’t rich, we were actually fairly poor, but somehow he’d gotten ahold of these video editing decks and cameras. Even though my brother and I had dabbled in video as kids, it’s not what we do for a living. So we wanted to find someone, and fucking randomly a guy messaged me on Instagram and was like, ‘Hey, I like your music and I’d love to work with you.’ I looked at his work and I was like, ‘This guy is for real!’ “
The author of that fateful Instagram message was Sundance award-winning director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte. “Miles directed the first three segments of the visual album and is the mastermind of the overarching video project,” Yoni explains. Joris-Peyrafitte’s visuals cut contemporary footage of Yoni and actress Tatiana Maslany with vintage home videos documenting Yoni’s childhood life in Cincinnati. It’s a fitting juxtaposition, as Yoni’s lyrics on AOKOHIO seem to question how memory, history, and place shape our anxieties and sense of self. “I moved back to Cincinnati after living in the Bay Area for over a decade,” Yoni says. “This album is very much me thinking about my mom and dad, and my siblings.”
Yoni’s return to his Ohio hometown brought on a period of critical self-reflection. “Is there a word for bad nostalgia?” Yoni asks. “When I think of the word nostalgia, it seems like pleasant feelings and all that, but this is not really like that. It’s more about reflecting on the anxieties I’ve had since I was born. Why are they there? Is this epigenetics? Is that shit just inside of me because of the Holocaust and my relatives back then? What am I really? Why do I operate in these ways?”
Ultimately AOKOHIO sees Yoni pushing to find meaning and peace of mind in the moment, even if it’s not exactly where he wants to be. “The title is sarcastic I guess,” Yoni offers. “But it’s also wishful. A lot of my album titles have been names of maladies, like Alopecia and Mumps, Etc. I don’t want to project that into the world. You know, ‘A-OK Ohio, I’m here and it’s fine.’ It’s like a mantra, ‘A-OK Ohio, I’m here and it’s OK.’ Even though in reality, everyday I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of Ohio.’“
AOKOHIO feels like a consequential addition to the WHY? catalog, possibly even an artistic turning point. But its creator remains circumspect when asked to comment on the album’s significance within his discography, instead preferring to characterize the work as the latest iteration of his deep commitment to his artistic practice. “I have no idea if this record is good or not,” Yoni says. “But I never really know. I know that I’ve never written a song that’s indispensable to the American songbook. But in terms of what it is, it’s a piece of art. I put blood, sweat, and tears into this album, and struggled through the creative process as I always do. As far as where this sits with the rest of my albums? I can’t answer that. I just know that my career is a lifelong career, and I’m working it. Every time it feels right, it makes me feel good.”